Economic anthropology has languished for decades, a victim of influential paradigms that would deny its right to exist. First, there are those who believe that all human behaviour is explicable with the help of economic models grounded in some form of “rational choice” theory. Some, perceiving the shortcomings of narrow economic models, emphasize instead the role of institutions in solving coordination problems; it is then all too easy to explain the history of these institutions in terms of their evolutionary efficiency. There is a close affinity between these approaches (usually known respectively as “neoclassical” and “new institutionalist”). Rejecting the reductionism of such approaches, many socio-cultural anthropologists deny the very existence of “economy”, insisting that meeting material needs cannot be distinguished from other needs, which are inextricably tied to society and culture in general.
Developing a middle ground position, the Department is committed to developing economic anthropology as an intellectual community, and even as a fully-fledged discipline (Hann and Hart 2001). We are committed to the theories and methods of anthropology, but we encourage engagement with economics, mainstream as well as heterodox, from the perspective of an institutionalist social science. This older institutionalism does not reduce the world to a functionalist logic. Rather, it examines how economic life shapes and is shaped by other fields, from the state to new media technologies, from law to religion and ritual. As fieldworkers, we pay particular attention to institutions at the micro level of society which tend to be neglected by other researchers, such as the house(hold) and the local community (Gudeman and Hann 2015a, 2015b). We question whether the theories and methods developed in Western social science on the basis (mostly) of Western evidence can be generalised to changing economies and societies in other parts of the world.
Our perspective is also firmly historical and comparativist. In moving beyond microstudies, we draw not only on anthropological concepts such as that of “culture area” but also on contributions from historians, sociologists and economists. Colleagues in these fields have often been more active than anthropologists in exploring the nature of economic life in socialist and postsocialist societies, where many of the Department’s projects have been based.
Chris Hann has been pursuing this agenda with like-minded colleagues for many years. In 2006, he and Keith Hart convened a multi-disciplinary conference in Halle devoted to the contemporary significance of Karl Polanyi, and in particular of his masterpiece, The Great Transformation. This led to two publications: Hann and Hart 2009, Hann and Hart 2011. During his Fellowship at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Study in 2013-4 he worked on a project "Repatriating Polanyi" which demonstrates the pertinence of a Polanyian approach to postsocialist Eastern Europe and to the Eurasian past more generally. (See Hann 2014a, 2014b, 2015).
Gudeman, S. and Hann, C. "Economy and Ritual. Studies of Postsocialist Transformations". New York: Berghahn.
Gudeman, S. and Hann, C. "Oikos and Market. Explorations in Self-Sufficency after Socialism". New York: Berghahn.
Hann, C. 2015, "Goody, Polanyi and Eurasia: an unfinished project in comparative historical economic anthropology". History and Anthropology 26 (3): 308-20.
Hann, C. 2014a, "Varieties of Capitalism, Varieties of Economic Anthropology". In: Vassilis Nitsiakos et al. (eds.), Balkan Border Crossings. Third Annual of the Konitsa Summer School. Berlin: LIT Verlag, pp. 10-30.
Hann, C. 2014b. "The Economistic Fallacy and Forms of Integration during and after Socialism". Economy and Society 43 (4): 626-49.
Hann, C. & K. Hart. 2011, "Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique". Cambridge: Polity.
Hann, C. & K. Hart (eds.). 2009, "Market and Society: The Great Transformation Today". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.